Not so Simple

Decipher eco-cleaning products, or make your own

Simple Green is nontoxic and biodegradable—but not natural.

Simple Green is nontoxic and biodegradable—but not natural.

Photo By David Robert

For the Consumers Union Guide to environmental labels, visit For tips and recipes on homemade natural cleaners, visit solutions.htm

Simple Green, a biodegradable, nontoxic cleaner, has been around since 1972. So it’s hard to say its company, Sunshine Makers, is jumping on the environmental bandwagon when it comes to taking advantage of the growing “green” market. Yet Simple Green is an example of how a product, based on its name, is not always as it appears. Simple Green cleans everything from Shelby Mustangs to kitchen tiles to airplanes. Its name implies that it’s environmentally friendly. What it is, is environmentally friendlier.

A large, Simple Green banner stood out among the shiny old cars at the Grand Sierra Resort during Hot August Nights. Sample bottles of car wash and all-purpose cleaner sat atop the vendor booth, their labels reading “biodegradable” and “non-toxic.” No ingredients were listed in the fine print, but this warning was: “Do not dispose of degreasing rinseates into or near storm drains, oceans, lakes or streams.”

So it’s nontoxic and biodegradable—but not safe to go down the drain? What’s in this? The lady behind the counter wasn’t sure. But, she said, “It’s not natural, but it’s biodegradable.”

The Simple Green Web site said that All-Purpose Simple Green is made of water, surfactants, wetting agents, emulsifiers, green colorant and fragrance. With a Green Seal certification and approvals from OSHA and the EPA for meeting biodegradability and nontoxic standards, it appears the company isn’t making false claims. But those who buy Simple Green because they think it’s best for the environment may be surprised to read the following on SG’s site:

” The only ingredient in Simple Green that could be considered natural is water.” And this: “Simple Green is an organic cleaner. Organic is defined as any compound containing carbon (please note that ‘organic’ in chemistry has a different meaning from ‘organic’ in food production.)'”

In a world of uncertain labeling, shoppers have incentive to look closely. Wooden spoons are touted as “natural” because they’re made of wood, and plastic products claim to be environmentally sensitive because they’re not made of wood. 7-Up manufacturers Cadbury Schweppes once considered high fructose corn syrup a “natural” ingredient.

Unlike food and energy-efficient products, there are no clear standards for eco-friendly cleaning products. Logos from the EPA’s Design for the Environment, Green Seal, or Environmental Choice provide some guidance.

Urvashi Rangan of the nonprofit Consumer Policy Institute suggests that customers choose natural cleaning products that voluntarily list all ingredients on their labels. Seventh Generation and Ecover are examples of these.

Or bypass the label confusion by making your own household cleaners. Here are a few:

All-purpose cleaner: Mix 1/2 cup vinegar and 1/4 cup baking soda (or 2 teaspoons borax) into 1/2 gallon of water.

Carpet stain cleaner: Mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Spray directly on the stain, and let sit for several minutes. Clean with a brush or sponge with warm, soapy water.

Window cleaner: Mix three tablespoons of vinegar for every quart of water in a spray bottle. Shake well.